Review: e-baby

e-baby, a new play by Australian journalist and cartoonist Jane Cafarella, does a brilliant job of laying bare the complex issues involved in commercial surrogacy arrangements, even when, as in this story about Australian IM (‘intended mother’) and American surrogate, the two parties share a common language and the best of intentions.

Aromababy - Ebaby PosterCatherine, vividly portrayed by Carolyn Block, is a 46-year-old lawyer, based in London, who is desperate to have a child but knows her chances are fast running out. ‘My mother told me the house is so quiet after the children leave home,’ she says. ‘Well, it’s also quiet when they never arrive.’ Catherine’s yearning leads her to an agency in the USA and ultimately to a young woman, Nellie — a spirited performance by Sarah Ranken — who agrees to act as surrogate for Catherine and her husband.

The play is told from the two women’s points of view, both actors on stage for the entire performance, monologues alternating with conversations between the two women by phone, Skype, and in person during periodic meetings in New York, where Catherine travels for work. Nellie’s soliloquys often take the form of her video blog posts (‘Follow me at Nellie’s Belly’) as she goes online for advice and reassurance from other surrogates.

Carolyn Bock as Catherine

Carolyn Bock as Catherine

One of the most striking scenes takes place when Catherine negotiates ‘the fine print’ of their contract. This includes discussion on what to do if tests reveals foetal abnormalities — Nellie states her opposition, as a Catholic, to abortion — and contingency planning in case of the death of the surrogate mother and/or intended parents. Catherine’s businesslike tone sits uncomfortably with the affective subject matter, paving the way for some heartbreaking decisions that lie ahead.

Catherine is a less sympathetic character than Nellie, and while I felt at times that her character veered towards stereotype as a high-flying career woman and control freak, it’s also a strength of the play that Cafarella doesn’t sugarcoat her. It made me question my own standards in terms of whether a person’s likeability affects the degree to which I take their pain and grief seriously. And there is a moment in the play — a powerful, wordless scene involving a silhouette projected on to boxes — where Catherine’s grief is palpable.

Sarah Ranken as Nellie

Sarah Ranken as Nellie

Nellie’s character is a God-fearing, working-class mother, typical of the profile for surrogate mothers in the US. But whether defending her preference for heavy metal music during the birth, trying to keep her family buoyant, or grappling with moral dilemmas, she is shown as competent and nuanced, her faith in ‘God’s plan’ tested by her experience.

For me, e-baby succeeds as a riveting play that doesn’t tell the audience what to think, with an ambivalent ending that befits the subject matter.

Jane Cafarella said in a panel discussion following the session I attended, ‘My intention [in writing this play] was not to say “Think this”, but “Look at this”.’ It is a measure of her success that while one surrogacy abolitionist on the panel saw the play as ‘a strong indictment against surrogacy’, both a woman who had been an altruistic surrogate and an IVF clinician said the play resonated strongly with their experiences.

e-baby is inspired by Cafarella’s experience as a journalist — she was one of the first to interview sisters Maggie and Linda Kirkman, who made history in Australia in 1988 when Linda carried baby Alice for Maggie — particularly by an interview with an expatriate woman in Bangkok, who’d had both her children via a surrogate in the USA. As Cafarella explains on her website,

Intrigued by her story, I spent hundreds of hours reading posts from surrogates and intended parents via online communities.
I found myself drawn into a world with its own language and rules and which challenged the definition of families and motherhood.
It is this world I have tried to portray in e-baby

Even for those who don’t share my passionate interest in the topic of commercial surrogacy, e-baby is a highly entertaining and provocative play that not only challenges  definitions of families and motherhood, but also explores issues of consent and control, generosity and grief, and the limitations of buying power in a world where everything seems at risk of being reduced to markets. Highly recommended.

e-baby is showing at Chapel Off Chapel in Prahran until Sun 15 March. Details and tickets here.

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About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based crime writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar won the 2004 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. She is a winner of the Scarlet Stiletto Award and has thrice been shortlisted for Ned Kelly awards. Her third novel, The Dying Beach, was also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award. Angela teaches writing and is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University.
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3 Responses to Review: e-baby

  1. This does sound like a really interesting play, Angela, with important themes. And it’s good to hear that it was well-executed as well. The whole question of surrogacy raises, as you say, so many complexities, even when all of the people involved have good intentions and are from similar (or even the same!) cultures. I actually like the choice to keep it all trimmed down, rather than add too many other characters and so on. I’d imagine it helps keep the focus on the real issues.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a point well-made, Margot. The playwright’s interest was in the relationship between the ‘IM’ and surrogate mother, and the stripped down approach did serve to intensify this relationship (the ‘intended father’, Catherine’s husband Harry, is mentioned but neither seen nor heard). In the panel discussion after the play, Carafella also said she deliberately omitted the child’s perspective, recognising that in the women’s focus on process, the interests of the child can get overlooked.

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  2. Kathy D. says:

    Yes. This sounds fascinating. Surrogacy is one of the most complicated issues among women. It is so potentially fraught with difficulties. Over here, every state has its own laws — or has none about this issue, yet it is so full of legal tangles. One has to bend into a pretzel to understand some of the lawsuits here that deal with surrogacy.
    And, yes, I fear that often the best interests of the child is not what comes first as they should. It probably should be as regulated as adoptions are within the States.
    And I would agree that everything can be reduced to market relations, unfortunately, with
    children as commodities.
    As Didier said if we eliminated poverty, that would solve a lot of the world’s problems. It
    would take the desperation out of the arrangement when poor women contract to be surrogates
    to make much-needed money for the benefit of women with financial means. I remember
    an article written in a leading paper here by a wealthy woman who had a mansion in the
    Hamptons who “hired” a surrogate. The surrogate had a rundown house and she wanted
    to help her daughter go to college; they needed the money. The contracting person didn’t
    even give the surrogate’s name at doctors’ visits; she was really a nonperson with her own identity.
    I don’t have a problem with women being surrogates out of friendship or to help a
    relative which has happened here, even with a few mothers doing this for their daughters.
    But when money enters the picture, it distorts the whole arrangement for so many reasons.

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